Pandemic-hobbled economy in 2020 led to the lowest U.S. carbon emissions in 37 years
Energize Weekly, January 5, 2022
The COVID pandemic depressed U.S. economic activity so much in 2020 that carbon emissions dropped to their lowest level since 1983, with an 11 percent decrease in emissions over 2019 to 4.6 billion metric tons, according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Since carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007, they have declined in nine of the last 13 years, but the size of the 2020 drop was larger than all previous years in tons and on a percentage basis.
“U.S. GDP [gross domestic product] decreased on a per capita basis because of the economic impacts of the pandemic,” the EIA said. “U.S. energy intensity also decreased as declining energy consumption, associated with the pandemic, outpaced declines in GDP. Total energy consumption in 2020 declined by 7 percent, while GDP declined by 4 percent.”
The majority the energy consumption decline, about 58 percent, came from the transportation sector, which was hardest hit by the pandemic.
The agency, however, expects that there was a turnaround last year. “As the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and travel and the economy begin to grow again, we expect carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to grow” by 7 percent or 300 million metric tons in 2021, the EIA said,
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is projecting a rebound in U.S. emission in 2021 by 200 million tons, but expects them to remain about 5.6 percent below 2019 levels and 21 percent below 2005 levels.
“Oil use, the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, should remain almost 6 percent below 2019 levels as transport activity remains curtailed across 2021,” the IEA said.
The biggest source of energy-related emissions in 2020, 2 billion metric tons or 45 percent of total emissions, came from the consumption of petroleum, mainly in the transport sector. Still, petroleum use was down 14 percent over 2019.
Natural gas use accounted for 36 percent of emissions, 1.7 billion metric tons – the fuel’s largest share of national emissions ever. About 38 percent of those emissions came from the electric power sector and 32 percent from the industrial sector.
Residential sector emissions were down 6 percent in 2020, or 57 million metric tons, year-over-year. “Although people stayed at home more often last year, the warmer-than-average winter temperatures resulted in lower-than-average heating demand, which led to an overall decrease in emissions,” the EIA said.
The commercial sector was responsible for 0.7 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions, 16 percent of total energy-related CO2 emissions. Emissions dropped 12 percent, equal to 100 million metric tons, due to a decline in commercial building activity as a result of lockdown restrictions and increased working from home.
Coal consumption – primarily by the electric power sector – created 0.9 billon metric tons of emissions, about 19 percent of total emissions, the smallest share and lowest total emissions since the EIA began tracking the numbers in 1973.
Ninety percent of coal produced goes to the power sector, but the EIA noted that “coal consumption in the electric power sector has declined over the past decade, displaced by natural gas and renewable energy.”
“The combination of conditions that lowered energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in 2020 relative to 2019 does not necessarily represent future trends, especially those related to the highly unusual economic and energy-related impacts created by the pandemic,” the EIA said.